Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Pitfall II the Final: Pitfalls in History

On (Videogame) Conversions, Adaptions, Translations

There are many other versions of Pitfall II that are not by David Crane. These separate products made for other game consoles and home computers are called "conversions" in our arbitrary gamer language. They are conversions, but I also want to think of them as translations between machine languages. The Commodore 64 version of Pitfall II was translated (and revised) to be interpreted by a new schema of hardware, slightly different game design histories, and slightly different audience expectations. The stolid and scientific connotation of "conversion" doesn’t exactly describe the transformative existence underpinning conversions of the period. A conversion is legibly the "original" at a purposefully surface glance, and so, whatever visual signifiers the translator picked as being marks of authenticity (the choices the translator made so that the game has some claim to the original) become another vector of expression. That picking and choosing is revision and negotiation between a target object and a theorized new one, inevitable results of any translation.

I have steadied my neurotic impulse to play every single version of Pitfall II (for now), but I have, on another occasion, played every single version of Gradius. The ZX Spectrum version in particular feels like a ghostly outgrowth of the machine itself. It somewhat looks like Gradius and yet it isn’t Gradius—the play is much too rigid, the sparse levels only reaching a facsimile of the original, the dark and hard palate causing at least a horror-esque feeling. Arcade Gradius skirts across some 80's horror aesthetics, and yet its soft colors and music composed in major key ends up feeling like a jubilant defiance of my unconsciousness. ZX Gradius is all horror, though it isn’t trying especially hard to haunt my dreams, it’s just that ZX Spectrum games, on average, look like that. In a surrealist coincidence, this and other Gradius conversions feel as if they anticipate (or were influenced by?) the more moody and frightening Gradius sequels, but I would still contend that, in this case, Gradius isn’t Gradius. At the same time, in a literal sense, even reinvested by a new author taking on the same title: Gradius can only be Gradius. The author of the ZX spectrum version has created a new interpretation of the original game and they can coexist in near-identical conceptual and symbolic space.

When someone creates a conversion (and adaptations might as well be included), they’re creating an original work that for myriad reasons tries to pass itself off as being a "new original". Adaptations, conversions—more prominently (for the moment) remakes—are the only "official" pathways where conventional ideas around authenticity and originality, and so also their intersections with copyright, are comfortably welcomed to be subverted. These physical translations create a gray zone where it’s not only okay but is aspirational to create an artwork that is derivative, copycatty, and unoriginal. A theorized so-called paradox of translation is that a translated work (and so an adapted work, a converted work, a remade work, etc) must have some claim to accuracy, and yet ultimately it is impossible for it to be the original. Because conversions are physical and not attached to lingusitic expectations, or in other words, they are not only translations, they consciously or unconsciously are made with awareness of their own gray zone, and lean heavily into revising the original work for new purposes. In other words, conversions, adaptations, and remakes are another way to demonstrate that copyright does not really protect innovation and that "artist rights" is a racket that is being used as a pretext for class warfare…

Pitfall II the Final

Pitfall II had a strange adaptation for the Sega SG-1000. Instead of the obvious practice of converting an arcade game to a home computer, it was adapted from the Atari 2600, to the arcades, and then back home to the SG-1000, becoming more and more divorced from any sense of the original. As for the arcade version, its out-of-placeness is probably the only compelling aspect. I didn’t really like it. Even if it had nothing to do with Pitfall II, and in its own way it kind of doesn’t, it would still register as a gaudy and conventional platformer. Because of its relationship with Pitfall II, it feels vaguely insulting to me, as Pitfall II is a game with an introspective passion to move away from arcade convention. By necessity, the arcade game focuses on time trials and twitch action, while keeping shapes and designs of the original intact, and it feels straightforward in its expectations, while 2600 Pitfall II never had the constituent parts to create a game in that vein, and it wasn’t meant to. Some internet commenters note that the arcade Pitfall II is more like Pitfall! (and so along those lines is more of a “true sequel to pitfall” because a continuing sameness has more consumerist weight than authorial intent), but that’s not exactly it either. There is an inarguable similarity between 2600 Pitfall! and arcade Pitfall II in that both games have strict time limits and timing. However, arcade Pitfall II is structurally legible as a cliche of a platformer of the time—a forest, cave network, aztec ruins—resulting in the most banal videogame romp out of the pitfalls, which is an impassable difference from the abstractions of either Atari Pitfall game.

The SG-1000 version is not like Pitfall II either, but it reverts and expands the arcade Pitfall II into something that (unintentionally?) has abstractions similar to the 2600 version, and so it is like Pitfall II but modeled after a game that really isn’t Pitfall II. Console translation is a reason for these changes. As the SG-1000 is almost identical to a Colecovision (which I’m sure is a useful comparison, as the Colecovision is a beloved console that my readers have played), it wouldn’t be able to match the display of an arcade, yet an early selling point for these consoles was that they could (or it was touted they could) recreate the "arcade experience." In this case, it means reproducing a few of the setpieces of the arcade game, and approximating some of the visual cues. Beyond that surface, it is functionally a different game: color in the world is established by inert solids and blacks, there are less things on any screen, the Aztec ruins twist (which is overwhelming in the arcade game) is subdued and made ambiguous, and the time limit is removed entirely.

Without the arcade version’s time limit, and with the harmonious choice to defocus action setpieces, SG-1000 Pitfall II regains its connection to inhabiting nature, which is a connection to the Atari 2600 version that the arcade version squandered by instead exaggerating an adversarial relationship with nature using drummed up fantastical or nonreal interpretations of that adversary. These changes to the SG-1000 conversion create a game that meaningfully intersects with David Crane’s Pitfall II, despite being based on a different game. SG-1000 Pitfall II meets my definition of "persistent game"—in gamer terms there is nonlinear exploration and backtracking, while the arcade Pitfall II does not really have those things. The SG-1000 map is expansive and confusing to navigate, it is most fun to describe it as a curse resting underneath a bastard version of the original Pitfall!. This fusion of arcade sensibility and finding one’s way through an abyss (as paradoxically, the SG-1000 version still has some action setpieces that are lifted from the arcade version) posits SG-1000 Pitfall II as being more similar to metroidvania games to come, than the slightly distant prototypical vision in the 2600 Pitfall titles. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to claim this game has similarities with metroidvania titles like The Castle (1986) and The Maze of Galious (1987), which means that I can draw a real line from SG-1000 Pitfall II toward something as massive as La-Mulana. Like its Atari 2600 progenitor, SG-1000 Pitfall II is an awkwardly historically important game!

Now if the SG-1000 could have just ran the arcade game, they would have ported it. This is not a guess, it’s boring videogame economics, and at some future point (in the past, from our present) this practice of porting replaced translation-esque conversions. This is a bit of a loss, because the conversion process prompts a translator to muck with and edit the game to better fit the new machine. The limits of a different technology, and also the taste, inclinations, development time available to, and ego of, the translator(s), cannot meaningfully be decoupled when this happens. Pitfall II, twice removed, can be thought of as either a fangame or a desecration and is a fascinating example of artistic diffusion that was much more common before copyright. (It can be thought in more positive terms as well, however, my point is, fuck copyright).

-> [While most every version of Pitfall II is special in some way, at least in how they relate to each other, this is not the case for videogame retellings in general. The fact that there are two different games both titled Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade's Revengs that pretend to resemble each other on the SNES and Game Boy is not really special to me or anyone. This is to underscore that it is the practice that is idiosyncratic as it challenges what can be acceptably shared between authors and works in a market context. This, however, does not mean it is a practice that it produces idiosyncratic games. I like to further imagine having the freedom to retell a game as I think is beautiful or necessary, without fearing legal reprisal: a freedom that was coincidentally bestowed for a few lucky translators, developers, authors, converters. I would also add a boilerplate acknowledgement that market sanctioned retellings occur within various pop culture forms (especially in the genre of cape comics), and in some respects a financial exploitation of this tendency can be oppressive toward newness in art. Yet because the videogame conversion strives to be intensely like an original, it shows itself to be uniquely perverse toward innovation, newness, and authorship—copyright turned against buzzwords that it is theorized to nurture.]

Of course, it’s not like Sega’s Pitfall II exists on the Atari 2600, so this relationship is a coincidence, a highlight, a mere contradiction. It isn’t freedom. Like most everything in videogames, it is only the illusion of freedom, and late capitalism traffics exactly through those illusions.

There is a more sinister historicism also embedded within Sega’s Pitfall II. There are no fucking credits! For either version! There are some initials on the arcade screen, but it is impossible to tell if they’re pseudonyms or not, as it was common practice to hide developer names in fear of poaching. Even if the arcade Pitfall II is a mediocre game, I’d say its tenuous connection to something like La-Mulana (and also console metroidvanias in general), because of its direct relationship to its SG-1000 port, makes it something historically significant. I am probably the first and only person in the world to make this claim, but I mean, making wild claims like this is the satisfactory reason for my unpaid research up to this point. The fact that there is no knowledge or record of the people who made the game is painful to contemplate because it points to the complete lack of interest in the relevant deep history that I have been writing. There are present relations and reasons to care about these games even if they don’t seem to directly relate to the present at first glance.

Based on who was employed at Sega at the time, and doing a cross analysis of credits on adjacent titles released in the months prior and after, I have a pretty good guess of at least one or two of the developers on either game. Both of those names are high profile veteren Sega developers. I did my research, my guesses make sense, but still I won’t print them here with the fear of being an ass, or more worrisome, the possibility of distorting our blank history with false history. (There is also the chance that these games were made by a third party contractor, meaning my angle of research could very likely be incorrect at base). This is actually a redaction. I had previously written an article detailing my theory, but now I think it would be an embarrassing thing to publish when the truth is still out there and obtainable.

That the knowledge is definitely still out there and obtainable, and the fact that it hasn’t been obtained but has just been left out there, is a tragedy. A refrain in this series is the clear presence of, and sometimes wild vindication of, authorship in early videogame history, and how that authorship is something I find myself connecting to as a solo(ish) developer. Yet early Sega’s anti-worker tendency to obscure or omit credits mirrors exact behaviour from Atari, which early Activision was an indirect critique of. This is an irreconcilable difference between the Pitfalls: Pitfall II is made by David Crane, a kind of swansong defiance of Atari’s tech monopolist bullshit, even if just for credulous reasons of wanting to be a famous game developer, and yet Pitfall II was fated to later become a black box registered to the no-faced Sega of 1985. (Another hole in the history appears. Who the hell at Activision brokered this license agreement? Who at Sega agreed to it?)

Knowing that Sega’s Pitfall II is an artistic unknown demonstrates to me that the anti-worker and anti-art sentiments of videogame history continue to materially triumph over the scattered and meek historicization and reclamation that doesn't have enough support to oppose exploitation and disposability.